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India's Recent Elections and the Way Forward

Aparna Pande

Earlier this week the U.S. Republican party held key primary elections while India had elections in five states. In both countries the result of elections will influence the course of politics and determine foreign policy.

In the case of the U.S. the elections were aimed at determining the leading Republican challenger and in the case of India the results would decide whether India will continue to have a government which muddles through or one which can take firm action on all fronts, domestic and foreign.

Five Indian states went to the polls but the most significant were the results in the most populous north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, home to a majority of India’s prime ministers, which sends 80 members of Parliament to India’s Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament).

The victory by the Samajwadi Party of three-time Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, was a result of a number of factors which included amongst others good organizational skills of his son and heir Akhilesh Yadav as well as a strong desire for change by the people of the state. The Samajwadi Party is a state-level caste-based party whose support base lies amongst the backward castes. However, the party’s strong Lohiate roots, mainly due to Mulayam Singh’s association with socialist leaders like Raj Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia, helped it appeal to other castes as well in these elections and thus widen its voter base.

The elections were equally important for the Congress-led government at the national level. The ruling Congress party had placed its hopes on regaining space in the state of Uttar Pradesh that it had lost over the years to caste-based regional parties. The Congress strategy was to bank on the youthful charisma and organizational skills of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty which has dominated the party for most of its existence. While Rahul did bring about some change to the organizational structure yet the Congress has deep structural problems not only in Uttar Pradesh but in many other states of the country and a soul-searching is required before any real change is possible.

The Congress has always projected itself as a secular party, one, which is ideologically different from the Hindu nationalist BJP, and the caste and language based regional parties. In these elections, however, the party vainly attempted to broaden its voter base by using caste and religion based appeals. Instead of helping the party, they only hurt its image.

The Congress party retained the state of Manipur and will form the government in Uttarakhand but these are minor victories compared to the loss in Uttar Pradesh. While it is still possible that the Congress may form part of a Samajwadi party coalition government in Uttar Pradesh what this means is that Congress’ bargaining power vis-à-vis its allies both at the state and federal level will be reduced even further.

For investors watching India as well for countries watching to see what India will do next in the current global political and economic scenario the news is not reassuring. While the Congress was never expected to win the elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a stronger showing would have not only boosted the morale of the party but also the position of Rahul Gandhi and strengthened the party at the federal level. A strong showing in these elections would have also ensured that the Congress-led government would feel more confident in implementing key economic and foreign policy related goals.

Elections to India’s Upper House or Rajya Sabha are due on March 30 for 58 seats of a 250-seat assembly. Of the 15 states in the fray the prominent ones are Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. The recent election results mean that the Congress will depend more on its allies like Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and DMK in Tamil Nadu.

Further, India’s presidential elections are due in July 2012 in which all elected Members of Parliament and of all state Legislative Assemblies vote. Normally, the ruling party, in this case the Congress, has enough votes for its candidate to win by a huge margin. It is not yet certain if the Congress will be able to muster enough support for its candidate and maybe that is why no candidate has been announced as yet either.

The leading opposition party, BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), has done only marginally better than the Congress in these elections. While the BJP came in third in Uttar Pradesh there is little chance of the party joining any coalition government with its archenemy the Samajwadi Party. The BJP wrested Goa from the Congress and in Punjab the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal government retained power. However, overall the BJP is suffering from as deep a malaise as the Congress.

The Congress’ strength used to lie in its secondary and tertiary level of leaders, people who rose up the ranks from the states and went to the national level. When the Congress started splitting up it also stopped producing those secondary leaders. From being a party which was present in every state and had deep roots with a system by which people rose up the ranks it changed into a dynastic family run party with a reducing level of inner party democracy.

The BJP has organizational and ideological problems along with leadership issues. The party has good secondary leaders but lacks any national level leader with the charisma of Atal Behari Vajpayee, someone who would appeal across the ideological spectrum. Further, the BJP traditionally depended on its allied ideological organizations like the Hindu chauvinist organization, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) to provide organizational roots. When the BJP spread to states where the RSS was not strong it either built its own roots or depended on allies. The problem lies herein: the BJP has not built strong organizational roots which are tied to the political party, the BJP. All this ties in to the main problem facing the BJP which is ideological: if the BJP wants to build its voter base it needs to become more inclusive as a party but the more inclusive it becomes as a party the further away it moves from its mentor ideological organizations like the RSS. The BJP has to resolve this dilemma in order to move forward.

Hence, while the recently concluded state assembly elections are a victory for Indian democracy the results at least for the federal government mean more muddling through, even lesser chance of much-needed economic reform and no dramatic foreign policy initiatives. At least for now.

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